Obama, Aurora, and the Nature of Power

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Obama on the Aurora massacre, July 20:

“Now, even as we learn how this happened and who’s responsible, we may never understand what leads anybody to terrorize their fellow human beings like this. Such violence, such evil is senseless. It’s beyond reason.”

The New York Times on how U.S. sanctions have, for the past 17 years, blocked the sale of desperately-needed civilian airliners and spare parts to Iran, causing thousands of deaths:

“I support the pressure on our leaders,” said Janet, a 54-year-old homemaker who did not want to give her full name, for fear of the authorities. “But I don’t understand why the U.S. wants to hurt us, normal people. Don’t we have the right to travel safely?”

For several weeks now, Americans have struggled to come to terms with the atrocity in Aurora, Colorado. In their attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible, they have picked through the detritus of James Holmes’ personal life – his academic failure, his recent breakup – to discern some motive.

But these explanations do not cut to the heart of the matter. Most people endure such hardships without lashing out at innocent people. So why did Holmes do it? The most honest answer may also be the simplest, and perhaps the most frightening: he did it because he wanted to do it. Because he felt like it. Because he wanted to assert his dominance over others, wanted to experience what George Orwell called “the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless.” For a few frantic, bloody minutes, he got his wish.

This is not a satisfying answer, but the nature of power does not lend itself to satisfying answers. Power, whether it is wielded over a theater full of frightened people or entire nations, provides its own justification. Orwell understood that. As the political dissident Winston Smith learns from his interrogator in Orwell’s masterful 1984:

“The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness; only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently… . Power is not a means; it is an end… . The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”

And again:

“How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?”

Winston thought. “By making him suffer,” he said.

“Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation… .”

Former Moscow Times columnist Chris Floyd has explained how the U.S. government’s embrace of torture serves little, if any, strategic purpose while inflicting massive suffering. The same holds true for the airline sanctions on Iran. American policymakers know that the sanctions have killed thousands of innocent people in plane crashes. They know that these measures do not target Iranian officials – as they claimed, falsely, about the recent economic sanctions – but the civilian population at large. They know from the 1990s sanctions on Iraq, which killed hundreds of thousands of children but did not unseat Saddam Hussein, that collective punishment will not inspire Iranians to overthrow their rulers. And they know that this terrorism will not persuade the Iranian government to halt its nuclear weapons program for the simple reason that the program no longer exists. It was halted back in 2003, and top U.S. military and intelligence officials have admitted this on a number of occasions.

So why do American policymakers persist in imposing policies that they know will harm innocent people for no discernible, much less justifiable, reason? As Floyd grimly concluded: they want to hurt these people. There is no “good” reason. There never is.

Of course, American policymakers never admit to harboring this impulse. Most likely they do not even recognize it within themselves. They lack the self-awareness of Orwell’s interrogator. Indeed, as I have written previously, Obama and his cohorts are utterly divorced from reality. They inhabit a fantasy world in which the U.S. promotes freedom by supporting dictators, protects civil liberties by destroying them, and defends itself by committing aggression. This same diagnosis applies to virtually the entire American foreign policy establishment.

Many people will never acknowledge that a moral equivalence exists between the Aurora shooter and the state-sanctioned murderers in Washington. On the contrary, they will deny it to the bitter end. When a libertarian group in Idaho posted a billboard contrasting Americans’ shock at the Aurora massacre with their acceptance of Obama’s murderous foreign policy, the result was spluttering outrage. Most online commenters dismissed the comparison as disgusting and offensive without elaborating on why exactly this was so. A Village Voice blog provides a more substantive example of this double standard by noting that the billboard’s statements are indisputably true, and then denying the logical conclusion:

Since Obama entered the Oval Office, yes, there have been thousands of deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, including our soldiers, enemy targets and citizens. Yes, drone attacks have spun out of control and the remote control killings of innocent people have been heavily reported on… .

But, regardless, making a connection between the foreign policy of the United States of America and the massacre of twelve people at a midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises is downright idiotic. It is an amateur attempt in political criticism, in which the absurd six degrees of separation is pulled out to receive shock value.

It’s like the ‘Bush is Hitler’ signs of yesteryear or the Stalin/Mao/[insert dictator here] billboards of Obama – the fringe that do actually believe that bullshit need hyperbolic narratives to explain points that [sic] cannot explain in coherent sentences. Here’s how we can explain it to them: Barack Obama is not like James Holmes. James Holmes is like James Holmes and Barack Obama is like Barack Obama.

But there is no need for hyperbolic narratives when discussing Obama’s penchant for deliberately killing people his own administration acknowledges to be innocent. Stories like this one, featured on the front page of the May 29 New York Times, will do:

Then, in August 2009, the C.I.A. director, Leon E. Panetta, told Mr. Brennan that the agency had Mr. Mehsud in its sights. But taking out the Pakistani Taliban leader, Mr. Panetta warned, did not meet Mr. Obama’s standard of “near certainty” of no innocents being killed. In fact, a strike would certainly result in such deaths: he was with his wife at his in-laws’ home.

“Many times,” General Jones said, in similar circumstances, “at the 11th hour we waved off a mission simply because the target had people around them and we were able to loiter on station until they didn’t.”

But not this time. Mr. Obama, through Mr. Brennan, told the C.I.A. to take the shot, and Mr. Mehsud was killed, along with his wife and, by some reports, other family members as well, said a senior intelligence official.

Make no mistake: if Obama were not the president of the United States but an ordinary citizen, his decision to bomb an adversary’s home and willfully kill his target’s extended family would be prosecuted as exactly what it is – multiple counts of first-degree murder.

But Obama is the president of the United States, and that is precisely the point. For many people this fact elevates him to a plane that is effectively beyond good and evil. As with a deity or force of nature, traditional moral standards simply do not apply. This is the same attitude that led Nixon to infamously declare, “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”

Today it is clear that Nixon was not thinking big enough. Call it a twenty-first century update to his archaic view of executive power: now when the president does it, it is not immoral, either.

Cross-posted from The-Protest.com